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Biafra as Third Space: Reading the Politics of Belonging in Nigeria-Biafra Civil War Literature

Stephen Temitope David


PhD Thesis, Stellenbosch University, South Africa, December 2019

The image of Biafra as a space of belonging has assumed currency in contemporary secessionist discourse. Wartime Biafran society is framed as a utopia where everyone belonged and felt safe. Consequently, this framing has birthed a robust following among Igbo youths who desperately seek an alternative to the 'unfriendly' Nigerian space. This deployment of memory/remembrance stirs up a need to question how people belonged within Biafra as well as the dimensions of violence that being 'an outsider within' might have created during the war. Thus, this thesis examines the representation of un/belonging in Biafra in selected literary texts to map the violence and layers of exclusion which the politics of belonging generates. This is to map and listen to those marginal voices that often 'fall through the cracks' in the war's historicity. I employ Nira Yuval-Davis's situated intersectionality as my methodological anchor in teasing out the unique experiences of vulnerable 'Biafrans' who were differently located within the wartime society as 'outsiders within' due to their ethnicity, gender, age, ability/disability, sexuality and class. I pay attention to the ways in which the interaction of these axes of identity creates characters whose fraught narratives of unbelonging spill outside the binary narrative frame of Nigeria-Biafra which is mostly deployed in writing and reading popular histories of the conflict. My reading is further moored to Nira-Yuval Davis' conception of the politics of belonging and Homi Bhabha’s idea of third space.

I position literary texts as my canvas in engaging with Biafra and Biafranness due to the poignant way fictional narratives represent private suffering. I read nine fictional narratives and two memoirs to curate a conversation between literature and history as 'cotexts.' Memoirs are selected across victims/hegemons divide to question the politics of memory and remembrance. I have selected texts written by erstwhile Biafrans due to the intimate manner in which they narrate the Biafran experience, and to facilitate my aim of listening to Biafran voices and stories. My aim is to get a more nuanced reading of the 'Biafran' experience by bringing the victims into conversation with the power brokers in wartime Biafra. The study finds that the unavowed narratives of Biafra that are trapped within the binary approach are revelatory of the excess which plagues most hegemonic accounts of the war. Within these stories from in-between, which I have framed as third space stories, the idea of Biafra as a homely space is unsettled to reveal the multiple forms of violence deployed against characters caught at the margins of belligerent positions in order to police belonging, ensure dogmatic solidarity, and to smelt a linear Biafran identity. These stories that emerge from the interstices of the Nigeria-Biafra dichotomy indicate that adopting an intersectional frame in thinking about the civil war produces a much more nuanced encounter with Biafra. More importantly, the voices that come to light within this mode of reading speak of excess and absences in a way that calls attention to an unfinished business of mourning and healing. They speak of a lack of return in the post-war moment, and of a continuity of trauma which is tied to a ruptured sense of belonging. These voices, and the stories they tell, also reveal that by creating spaces for narrative engagements where speaking and listening can thrive, unencumbered by hagiographical histories, a measure of belonging could blossom.

Full Text:


Biafran War Database.
Editor: Azuka Nzegwu.

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